Is it really 13 years since Beth Orton's delicate tones first appeared on William Orbit's seminal opus Strange Cargo III? At the time, she was holed up in London, trying to learn the art of lyric-writing and twanging chords from a Teach Yourself Blues Guitar book. Her plaintive vocals eventually caught the attention of Tom Rowland of The Chemical Brothers and propelled her into the dimmed limelight of the downtempo diva. If you wanted a folk twang to your nocturnal beats, Orton was your woman.
So how did she make the transition from dance beats to North American-style folk? Well, the answer lies in her initial inspirations. Growing up in Norfolk, the likes of Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Rickie Lee Jones, would all be playing acoustic mind-games in her head. These all seem obvious reference points as she appears on stage tonight, head bowed, almost apologetic, heading straight for the comfort of the piano tucked stage-left. Launching straight into the first track, "Worms", from the exquisite new album Comfort Of Strangers, she dominates the large auditorium with her voice, her confessional demeanour a welcome cover for her nervous disposition.
After 10 years of steady success, life hasn't got any easier. Expectations are higher, there's a fear of stagnation, and equally of alienating the fans she's managed to accumulate. It's been four years since her last album, Daybreaker, and her first UK tour since 2004, so when she tells the audience that she's glad they like her new songs, and that it always takes a while to get used to a new pair of shoes, she genuinely means it.
Orton is one of those performers who you can see unravel in front of your very eyes. In a typically British way you find yourself willing her along, hoping that she will tune the guitar in time, that her silly jokes will be funny, and that her apologies will be appreciated. But her in-between banter is engagingly refreshing. She doesn't do super-gloss production and her shows are all the better for it. It certainly makes the rolling freight train rhythm of "Rectify" and the achingly beautiful solo rendition of the eternally crepuscular "Stolen Car" that much more endearing.
Long legs set slightly apart, shoulders slightly hunched under a tight denim shirt, it's hard not to agree with the Mercury Music panel when they dubbed her "queen of the heartbreak vocal" after her 1996 debut Trailer Park. But there's also veiled lightness to her demeanour; a sense of not taking herself too seriously, and of being extremely grateful for the chance to air her new compositions. And the setlist is drawn extensively from her new material - her occasional forays into the back catalogue done largely solo with a single spotlight marking out her gangly frame.
By the time she gets to "Heart Of Soul" she's visibly relaxed and cranking up the passion, adding extra gravitas to the lyrics: "so tell me what Neil Young said, you pick a flower and it's dead". The band (rhythm guitar, bass, drums, and piano) hails from Chicago - aside from the piano player who's a Norfolk boy. They remain professional shadows throughout.
"Feral" is her Joni Mitchell moment, and once again touches on the recurring theme of soured relationships, alluding to the strength of feral children who know that there are "no words for the infinity of ghosts". Like so much of the new material, it sounds fully formed in a live setting, and like her voice, has a richer tone. Even when she manages to rock out with the fervour of a less-contrived Alanis Morissette on "Shopping Trolley" it doesn't sound forced.
The best moments are saved until last when Orton dedicates a beautifully sparse version of "Pieces of Sky" to a mysterious local muse, and a perfectly weighted encore performance of "She Cries Your Name" and the delicately fractured "Feel to Believe". On the strength of this performance Orton's light hasn't faded just yet.
Touring until 28 February; www.bethorton.muReuse content